Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Facing up to an army of presidents

If Syria is pushing Lebanon toward an election whose effect will be the elevation of the army commander, Michel Suleiman, to the presidency, then four events in the past week seem to confirm this scenario. The first was Michel Murr's ambiguous expression of support for Michel Aoun as president, issued last Thursday on the "Kalam an-Nass" program, which unambiguously revealed that Murr was really placing his money on Suleiman. The second was Suleiman's visit to Diman on Saturday to visit with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Despite Suleiman's denials, the meeting had everything to do with the presidency. The third was the chilling threat issued by alleged Fatah al-Islam militants, warning that they would launch a terror campaign throughout Lebanon. And the fourth was Suleiman's statement on Monday - in contrast with what Prime Minister Fouad Siniora declared several weeks ago - that Fatah al-Islam was "not affiliated with the Syrian intelligence services." This must have been music to the Assad regime's ears, a test well graded.

Suleiman's presidential ambitions are no longer a secret. On Monday, the former minister Albert Mansour made a statement to this newspaper that the army commander had told him he would accept heading a transitional government if Lebanon's politicians didn't agree over a candidate, provided all sides accepted Suleiman's nomination. More intriguing, Mansour added that if the army commander presided over such a government, this would mean he could dispense with a constitutional amendment necessary for active senior state officials to stand for office.

This is worrying, because if Albert Mansour said what he did, then he almost certainly had a Syrian green light to do so. Far from desiring a vacuum, Syria apparently is seeking to use the threat of a vacuum to push its favorite through. Suleiman is not necessarily the only nominee, but he does seem to be the most likely one, because it's the army that Syria wants to see win out. Michel Murr's recent assertion that only the army can maintain security in Lebanon today, combined with Fatah al-Islam's threats, means the security situation might have to deteriorate first for Suleiman to become more palatable to the parliamentary majority.

That's not to suggest the army commander would be part of such a ploy. Nor is it to suggest that Suleiman would be rejected outright by the majority. The fact that on Saturday Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem backed France's initiative in Lebanon was revealing. It indicated that Damascus is focused on bringing European pressure to bear on the majority to accept its candidate of choice. The tactic may well work. France, Spain and Italy, pillars of UNIFIL all, are determined not to allow a void at the top of the state, and if Suleiman is their way to avert that outcome, the March 14 coalition will find it hard to say no.

The trick for the majority will be to avoid an unconstitutional transfer of authority to a military government led by Suleiman. Such a step would not go smoothly. It would only divide the Lebanese further and cripple Suleiman politically, and with him the army. So the majority must focus on two things: ensuring that a truly democratic election takes place on time and preparing for Suleiman if his candidacy gains momentum because of outside pressure. The army commander has behaved astutely in recent years, his performance during the 2005 Independence Intifada was exemplary, but it will take more to convince the Lebanese that they should embrace another officer as president. Lebanon always distinguished itself from other Arab countries by not chronically resorting to military men in times of strife. Yet now, with Emile Lahoud, Michel Aoun, and Michel Suleiman in play, we find ourselves dodging berets.

If Suleiman cannot take power against the will of the majority, as the general himself recognized, then the March 14 coalition has considerable leverage to shape his policies or those of other presidential contenders. Here are some conditions the majority should impose, if only to consolidate the gains made in 2005 when Syria withdrew from Lebanon.

The first is to insist that any new president publicly abide by the decisions of the national dialogue sessions of 2006, especially full and unconditional support for the Hariri tribunal, and make these a centerpiece of his or her inaugural address and the Cabinet statement. The president would also have to commit to resolving those issues the dialogue participants failed to agree over, particularly Hizbullah's arms. March 14 might ask for a written declaration of purpose, though the document could remain secret to avoid embarrassing the president. It would only be brought out if he or she failed to abide by its terms.

A second condition is that Suleiman's successor as army commander be approved by the parliamentary majority. The commander is appointed by the Council of Ministers, which emanates from Parliament, so it is legitimate for the majority to be afforded a final say over who Lebanon's senior military officer will be. A mechanism will have to be found so that opposition groups have an input into the selection process, but the majority must have the last word on whoever is chosen.

A third condition, and Saad Hariri would have to sign off on it, is that Fouad Siniora be reappointed as prime minister, but only if he proves he is not Suleiman's man as some are beginning to fear. This is important for several reasons. First, Siniora has the experience needed to go through what would undoubtedly be a critical transformation period. Second, Hariri needs to maintain a cushion of deniability between himself and the government at a time of deep polarization, to avoid being discredited if the public mood turns sharply against the government. And third, Siniora is the person best placed to defend the legislative legacy of the current government, which the opposition is still trying to reverse.

In parallel, the majority will have to try to take advantage of Michel Aoun's frustration with being shunted aside as president. Realizing that his political ambitions are about to be wrecked, the general may yet be willing to turn into a kingmaker and come to an agreement with the majority over a candidate with whom both sides feel more content. This bargaining should take place while the majority negotiates with the candidates Syria puts forward, turning March 14 into an arbiter.

The obstacles are immense. If the Syrians don't get their way, they will react brutally. Many Lebanese, and the army itself, won't take kindly to measures portraying Suleiman in a bad light. And Aoun is unlikely to do the smart thing and change direction, even if his allies abandon him on the presidency. But bearing in mind that Syria may be the least pleased with a vacuum - because the Hariri tribunal will advance anyway - the majority may be the one with time on its side. That's why it should act like a majority, be forceful on its priorities, and ensure that 2005 was not just a fantasy.

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